The Surprising Wisdom of Waze

The purpose of the straight-talking app was to beat traffic. It became an unexpected guide to the city

We were barely out of the driveway when the fight began. My lovely 27-year-old niece and I were meeting friends for supper at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Beverly Hills. We were shiny and done up and looking forward to a cheery, carnivorous evening. It was 6:10 on a weeknight—just about the worst time to go east from my house in West L.A. We gave ourselves 50 minutes. And we had a new friend along to help us navigate: the Waze girl, the voice (though you can opt for a male speaker) of the hottest traffic app going. This was my first outing with her. She was speaking in her hyperarticulate way from my niece’s iPhone 5. As I backed into the street, she told me to proceed north and “in 900 feet turn right onto…”—and then I jumped in. “No way, ” I said of the route, which seemed far from direct. “We need to go south.”

My niece was still smiling, though her jaw tightened a bit. “Aunt Anne,” she said patiently, “she’s trying to help us avoid the jam-ups. That’s the whole point of this.”

“OK,” I said. “But it still makes no sense. It’s like going around your behind to get to your thumb,” I added, a cleaned-up version of a favorite expression used by my late husband.

My niece was beginning to frown. “All right,” I said. “I’ll do it.”

Two blocks later the voice crisply and cleanly said, “Turn right onto Sunset Boulevard.” Fearing that thoroughfare’s dense traffic, I interjected again, “No, no, no, no, no. I just can’t do that. It’s crazy.”

My niece shut off the app. “I am not going to listen to you fight with the phone all the way to dinner,” she said. “Clearly you aren’t temperamentally suited to listen to these instructions.”

I grunted. I wanted to object. A piece of me resists being told what to do, even by the most helpful, if disembodied, person. There is a reason I have been a freelance writer my entire life, thus placing myself out of the immediate reach of a boss or an authority figure. My niece was right, but she had the good grace not to say, “I told you so,” or some variation of that, when within a few blocks I landed us in gridlock. “Just wait,” I said. “I have my own clever detour coming.”

It wasn’t pretty. We crawled along the streets without speaking until we got to the restaurant. I felt ridiculous. “Sorry,” I managed to say. “I promise to try the app again.”

In the days after, I watched my niece, who is temporarily bunking in my cottage, sail out into the city with confidence. She had arrived in Los Angeles only a few weeks before and already had a directional mastery—and some motorist moxie to go with it—that had taken me a lifetime to achieve. I offered input when she was heading off to North Hollywood or Koreatown, and she just smiled and held up her phone. “I’m all set,” she said. “To me, Waze is the Voice of God.”

Complaining about traffic has been an L.A. pastime for decades. I remember my parents bemoaning the number of drivers 50 years ago. My mother, who for a while drove one of those chic first-generation Thunderbird coupes (it was pink) and then one of those signature 1965 Mustang convertibles, was sorrowful about her inability to move around unhindered. She loved to drive and was heartsick about how difficult various expeditions had become. I, of course, began to share her frustration once I got behind the wheel. My family watched as attempted improvements came—another lane here, another off-ramp there, all of which seemed to be packed the minute they were built. Then came navigational tools like MapQuest and GPS. They offered directions but no guidance about the fastest way to go. Angelenos found treasured shortcuts, but those, too, were quickly discovered by others. A pall of aggrieved resignation settled over the Los Angeles basin. It never occurred to me that there could actually be a better, easier, happier way to move through my ever more clogged city.

Now there’s this new girl on the block, and she’s seducing everyone. A friend visiting from Oakland had tickets for a LACMA show. No sooner were we in the car than she apped up, and the Waze babe was telling us where to go. This time I kept my mouth shut and did everything she suggested. I was beginning to get it. Some of the route was obvious—the 405 to the 10 to Fairfax. Then came a surprising little dance step, a jaunt via 8th to Orange Grove to Wilshire. It was cool.

I was hooked. I began Waze-ing my way to the local market just to experience the imaginative routing. I was warned whenever there was a traffic cop lurking or an object in the road. I loved when the voice said, “Traffic ahead,” then within a nanosecond sent me zigzagging through streets I hadn’t been on in years. I drove through leafy pockets of my neighborhood to which I’d been oblivious, including one just behind the Ralphs that I regularly patronize. Getting to Century City—rather, racing there to meet a friend for a movie after a late start—I ended up in a pleasing neighborhood of smallish houses in Westwood tucked between Wilshire and the Mormon temple. I slowed down and looked around. For someone whose own area has been wrecked by McMansions, it was like going back in time. That for me is the most enjoyable part of this. I often feel as if I am on a treasure hunt for a lost L.A.

I understand now that I am part of a collective traffic consciousness built from user-generated real-time information. As we Waze practitioners move about we communicate our maneuvers, helping those setting out on their own routes. We are not the grumpy, atomized drivers of yore. We are a family, pawns in the same streetwise chess game. I am amused when I find myself following someone who is making the same moves I am: a left here, a right there, another right, another left. A fellow Wazer, no doubt.

The other dividend becomes increasingly apparent. I no longer have to pay the same furrow-browed attention to my outings. Once in the car, I can relax, float, or sing (ineptly) along with my favorite songs, while my techno-companion tells me what to do. It is a lesson in yielding, letting go. Stop trying to control everything (a lesson I hope might spill over into my other activities). There is a madness that has gripped us for so long in our attempt to manage the unmanageable: everyone else in their cars.

When I enter my vehicle these days, it is with a shiver of amusement, even optimism, as I anticipate the fun. Just a short while ago, every time I belted myself in, I started to tense up for the fight ahead. Now I am up for the game. I might return to a destination, but the proffered route will vary because of changed circumstances. I can also choose an alternate set of directions. I love this characteristic, the unknowable, and the quick corrections as the app senses trouble. One of my closest friends lives off Pico near 20th Century Fox. In recent years I had refused to go to her condo for supper during the week. Instead we shared a meal by eating at our respective homes while talking on our cell phones.

A few weeks ago I decided to undertake a rare midweek, Waze-enhanced trip to enjoy her delicious pasta with lobster. What a hoot: I took about six little deviations to get to Wilshire from my house—it felt as if I were tacking in a sailboat. My one Waze gripe (and I have encountered this a couple of times) is having to make a nasty left turn onto Wilshire at a stop with no light. Things were smooth after that. I hopped on the 405 south, only to be ordered off at the very next exit, at Santa Monica Boulevard. In a lifetime here, I had never done that. Then it was a relatively easy shot to Beverly Glen, then south, then east, and I was 20 minutes early. I was laughing into the intercom when my friend answered.

Perhaps I got lucky. Maybe that won’t happen again. Or maybe everyone will get with the program and we will find ourselves in Wazelock. I pray not.